Yesterday Nintendo announced a new version of the dual screen DS, called the DSi.
There are a number of minor enhancements: slightly larger screen area, slimmer case, a (toy) camera, improved audio.... But the change that appears to be the primary reason for the upgrade is replacing the GBA slot with a standard SD memory slot.
By using a flash card, DSi owners will be able to download and store games on their DS. (Currently downloaded games are only available as long as the system is on and the game is in memory.) This allows for downloadable content ala WiiWare for the DS.
The SD card can also be used to transfer pictures taken on the DS to the Wii. But the DSi camera is such low resolution, this is essentially a waste. (My phone takes better pictures.)
The use of flash memory for downloadable games is so obvious it is a wonder it was not built into the original DS or the DS Lite. But thinking back to when the DS was first introduced, the concept of the dual screen itself was so revolutionary, the use of a GBA slot to provide a level of backwards compatibility was clearly more important to help consumers make the transition. But now the GameBoy market is quiescent; to the point where removing the GBA slot will cause little to no concern in the market.
So, is it worth upgrading your DS when the DSi becomes available? I think that depends on two things:
- How robust the "DSiWare" market is at launch. If Nintendo provides compelling downloadable content, the upgrade will pay for itself. Unfortunately, Nintendo has a checkered history for supporting its own hardware upgrades and add-ons (think: VirtualBoy, Gamecube Bongos, GameBoy Camera...) this is a new system, not an add-on. But it will require games and content to make it useful.
- What other forms of "flash" downloadable content will be supported.
Clearly the enhanced audio capabilities would suggest downloadable mp3 music files are a target. But the real question, for me personally, is will Nintendo support other user-generated content, in particular home-brew games?
Nintendo has a great opportunity here to open up an entirely new market in the video game industry. Only Xbox, thus far, has embraced the hobbyist game developer with its XNA toolkit. But creating a game and being able to share it are two different things and Microsoft has not created a viable marketplace for small developers yet. Providing the ability to load homebrew games onto standard SD cards could dramatically change the indy game marketplace.
Is this a big market? Compared to the casual market the Wii created, no. But compared to the market for listening to MP3s on a DSi which is three times the size (with a fraction of the memory) of an iPod, this could be a real game changer, similar to the Wii.
Clearly there are issues around licensing and security -- there would need to be distinctions between commercial titles that need to protect themselves against copy piracy and simpler downloadables. But compared to the potential for leapfrogging Microsoft and XNA (and the fact that they need to address the piracy issue with rewritable media anyway) I would think this would be almost too good an opportunity to miss.
The only thing standing in the way is Nintendo's past stance against anything unlicensed, which goes back all the way to the original NES. It is unclear whether they have the vision to set a new path. WiiWare is a beginning, but the qualifications to get signed up for that program excludes all but the biggest indy developers.
One possible alternate route is if Nintendo collaborates with the likes of DigiPen or Carnegie-Mellon to develop simplified game development "systems" (essentially a game-making game). This has been tried in the past. But without a distribution mechanism, the results were little more than private fiddling. Using a combination of a "casual" game development system, writable media, an online community, and friend codes (I know everyone hates them, but they do offer protection), Nintendo could once again revolutionize the game industry by creating the equivalent of Flickr or YouTube for games.